Kerry Appathurai’s impressive 20-year career has taken her from Cadbury and Nestle to Parmalat and now Lion, where she’s Customer Sales Director – Endeavour Drinks Group. She shares her career journey, advice for women entering sales and why her favourite saying is ‘it’s what you do next that defines you’.
Kerry learnt the art of business from a young age, watching her parents run a successful chain of convenience stores.
“It really set me up for a career in sales because they’re both amazing with people and really good leaders, but can also manage a P&L.”
Describing herself as a natural extrovert, Kerry tells the story of being the crazy kid that would collect all the trade show brochures. “I’d set them up at home and pretend I was selling to the neighborhood.”
After working in the family business right through school and then through studying business, Kerry decided the goal was to work for one of Australia’s big FMCG companies.
“I sent off five letters, got five interviews and three job offers – I chose a sales rep job with Cadbury.” That was 1998.
Path to sales leadership
Fast-forward 20 years and Kerry is now leading a team of 20 people and responsible for 40% of Lion’s retail pack sales business. Her team manages the end-to-end process of doing business with Endeavor Drinks Group, Woolworths’ liquor arm, and includes supply and demand, category management, customer marketing, and account and national business management.
“I’ve got to be across every functional area of how we do business with our customer” explains Kerry.
“But the biggest part of my role is leadership. It’s motivating and inspiring my team, and making sure everyone feels supported, that we know where we are heading and that we’re also getting the outputs we need as a business.”
Kerry’s leadership journey began five years into her time at Cadbury, when she represented Cadbury at an industry event and won a scholarship, which gave her the opportunity to participate and attend leadership programs and trips overseas to study the industry with likeminded sales leaders.
Ultimately leadership – and having three children – has made her a more patient salesperson and given her a different perspective on what skills are needed to succeed in sales.
“At the start of my career, I was 200 miles an hour, trying to get my sale and beat my record. Now I understand you need to be just as much of a listener as you are a salesperson.”
The DNA of a successful salesperson
You also need drive in sales, “because there’s no sales target that’s an easy target”, and resilience. One of Kerry’s favourite sayings is ‘it’s what you do next that defines you’.
“I’ve had some big pitches in my career, where I’ve been 95% sure it’s going to close and blindsighted when it hasn’t. As devastating as these experiences were, the learnings I got from them made me a more successful salesperson.”
Women in sales
Kerry encourages any woman considering a career in sales to do it. “I love what I do! It’s a very rewarding career. Sales is very tangible and it’s a great feeling knowing you’ve actually achieved something.”
She also encourages an open mind on what sales is. “It’s not the old school ‘I’ve got a briefcase and I’m going to sell whatever’s in it’. These days it’s about understanding the needs of the customer, and their consumer/customer, forming strong business relationships and working together to unlock growth for both parties.”
The industry is also becoming more gender balanced.“There’s more women in sales now than ever before.”
But Kerry believes we need to continue to bust myths and support our female sales leaders.
It’s amazing to see how many women are coming up through the ranks in different industries and aspiring to those senior leadership roles. I think it’s quite a myth women don’t want those roles.
“I find, as a woman, our ambition grows as our experience grows,” she says.
“We need to support each other and give each other more confidence to take those chances.”
Owning your ambition and development
Kerry has never had a five-year plan, preferring to let her path guide her. A strategy that she acknowledges only works if you’re taking ownership of your development and creating the right network around you.
“I’ve always been open and honest that I’m ambitious and want to grow, and because of that opportunities have presented themselves. But I’ve also listened to what others think are my development areas and actively worked on them,” she says.
“It’s also important you find the people that will be your support network and speak highly of you to others – that will help build your career.”
In fact, this is how the job at Lion came about in mid-2018. One of Kerry’s industry colleagues campaigned for her to join Lion.
A supportive and authentic company culture
Initially, Kerry wasn’t sure about taking on the role at Lion – she’d never worked in liquor or managed a customer the size of Woolworths in liquor before.
“I did some digging around and heard really amazing things about the Lion company culture,” she says. “But overall it was that they were willing to put their trust in me, and knowing I hadn’t worked in the industry before, but believed that I could add value”.
Come day one, Kerry knew she’d made the right decision. “It didn’t feel like a new school. Everyone was so welcoming, supportive and authentic.”
Kerry also appreciates the autonomy she’s been given in leading and shaping her team.
Choices not balance
Kerry has three girls, a 13-year-old and identical twins that just turned 10, and doesn’t believe in work/life balance.
It’s a little controversial, but I don’t think there ever is a balance. It either goes one way or the other, and you’ve just got to make choices.
At the start of every week, Kerry sits down with her husband, who has a similar job, to map out who has what on and who’s going to do what.
“There’ll be sometimes when I’ve got to lean into work, and I may not be able to get to that assembly or parent information night. But other times, I’ll rearrange my workload so I can attend. Lion are very supportive of that. I also try and work from home 1 day a week, so I can pick the kids up and drop them off – this one day means so much to them, and to me, and is always super productive being out of the office environment”.
Kerry does, however, make sure one day every second weekend is marked off in the family calendar. “That’s a day just for us.”
Hear Kerry Appathurai share more of her journey to sales leader and advice for others at the WORK180-hosted women in sales panel discussion on 17 March 2020. Find out more.